Book Reviews

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When does an exile become a refugee? When political persecution becomes open warfare? This month we review an autobiography and two studies that examine how it feels to be in flight from violence.

Review Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Exiles from Latin America

Portrait of an Exile
by Andrew Graham-Yooll
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Junction Books UK: (hbk) £9.95 (pbk) £3.95
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Mental Health and Exile
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World University Service UK: (pbk) £2.00
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The son of a Scots immigrant to Argentina, Andrew Graham-Yooll was for ten years the news editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, the newspaper of the country’s English-speaking community. After General Jorge Videla’s military coup of March 1976, the Herald, despite its overall sympathy for the armed forces’ intervention and its small circulation, became well known as one of the very few legal newspapers prepared to defy government censorship and intimidation. In particular, it continued to publish details of ‘disappearances’ of political detainees, of which there have been at least 15,000 since the coup.

In September 1976, increasing threats and ever more frequent deaths among friends and colleagues led to exile for Andrew Graham-Yooll and his family. They now live in London.

Despite its title, Portrait of an Exile, and the opening and closing chapters dealing respectively with adjustment to a new life in England and a brief return to Argentina in October 1980, the main theme of this slim volume of highly personal reminiscences is not exile at all. Rather it is the creeping sense of ineffectuality felt by a self-proclaimed ‘woolly liberal’ caught in the violence of Argentinian politics in the mid-1970s, perceived by him as a meaningless contest between left-wing guerrillas (‘youthful rebels’ drunk on ‘the ideological claptrap of revolutionary sacrifice’) and the military and paramilitary right (‘the fury of the backlash; the blind cruelty of the most primitive beings’).

Much of this book is moving, both poignant and chilling. Its low-key style and self-deprecating irony often starkly point up the brutalities of state terror, the nocturnal raid, the threatening phone call, the sudden murder of friends, the torture and secret killings, as they intrude into the life of ‘the small man’ (to use another of the author’s rather self-conscious descriptions of himself). The book is weakened by lapses from telling anecdote into novelettish whimsy, and is betrayed altogether by its dependence for interpretation on the weakest commonplaces of liberal commentary. For this reviewer, at least, the reduction of Argentina’s recent political history to a clash between two essentially similar forms of irrational violence, one from the left, one from the right, and both of them emanations of a kind of national death-wish, is both psychologistic and superficial. Nor are notions of youthful fervour, brute primitivism or a historical legacy of violence sufficient to explain the deep-rooted conflicts of a complex third world society; they merely beg more basic questions.

Though quite different in intention, the World University Service’s Mental Health and Exile echoes interestingly several points made by Andrew Graham-Yooll on adjustment to exile (which one wishes he had developed further), particularly about the loss of a sense of ‘being someone in a defined community, and the painful transition from the consciousness of exile as a short-term state to something more permanent The WUS publication is a collection of four studies by Latin American specialists of 'the psychopathology of exile’ among Chileans, Argentinians and Uruguayans in several European countries, as well as one of Chilean exiles who have recently returned to their country. Though highly professional in their approaches, these studies
are completely accessible to the lay-person and should be an indispensable practical aid both to communities of exiles and those working with them.

Malcolm Coad
(Malcolm Coad is editor of ‘Index on Censorship')

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...and refugees from Indochina

Today is a Real Day: Indochinese Refugees in Australia
by Wendy Poussard
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Asian Bureau Australia/Dove Communications Aus: $12.95
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Old Australian soldiers never die; they continue, ad nauseam, to rave away, not just fighting old battles but planning new ones. Racism has oft emerged in - the Returned Servicemen's League (RSL) - and did so again at the July Victorian State RSL convention in a motion calling for the 'percentage' of British migrants to Australia to be increased. That didn't necessarily mean fewer Asians, said a Victorian RSL spokesman, but the State RSL president's utterance that Australia needed more Indochinese 'like a hole in the head' implied the thrust of the motion.

Australia is a racist nation, albeit not one that brags about it. Its treatment of Aborigines aside, its racism is benign enough. Perhaps it is more a selfishness and a head-in-the sand attitude that foreigners will continue to arrive but that they won't actually occupy living space so close that their presence becomes reality.

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Photo: UNICEF/ Jacques Danois

Uprooted by the Vietnamese war, a child refugee is washed up on the streets of Saigon.

Poussard has produced a book which offers a clearer guide to mutual understanding than anything so far written about the 40,000-plus Indochinese refugees settled in Australia by the end of 1980. The book’s message is that Australians should not preen themselves in knowing that Australia is the fifth-largest recipient of Indochinese — and then simply turn their back on them. Poussard writes: ‘Refugees are more than happy with the reception ... from Australian officials.., many are disappointed that (then) the only Australians taking any interest in them seem to be door-to-door preachers...’

Poussard believes ‘White Australia’ lives: ‘The change from xenophobia to multiculturalism has certainly not been completed. Occasionally the pale ghost of white Australia can be heard whining about the preservation of a mythical Anglo-Saxon society. . . A lesson we can learn from other countries is that it is not the presence of minority groups which creates social tensions, but the attempt to ignore or suppress them.’

Khanh, 27, attempts to convey a difficult concept for second-and-more-generation Australians: ‘I am very lucky but I, like all others, don’t feel very lucky. . . Australia is the best country which takes Vietnamese... But please remember that we are Vietnamese and our hearts are broken.’

Today is a Real Day is a valuable contribution to the task of helping white Australians to realise their nation can be a better and more tolerant place through the rich cultural input by its Asian neighbours. If the president of the Victorian RSL State branch cares to call me, I’ll buy him a copy.

Bob Hawkins


The Grapes of Wrath

... being the book that blew a political storm out of the Dust Bowl disaster.

WHEN I WAS a kid my ol' man give me a haltered heifer an says take her down an get her serviced. I done it, an ever since then when I hear a businessman talkin about service, I wonder who’s gettin screwed.’

A dispossessed sharecropper from The Grapes of Wrath tells the joke. He explains, more seriously, ‘A fella in business got to lie an cheat but he calls it somepin else.’ The comment sets the tone for Steinbeck’s powerful novel: in the name of sound business, hundreds of thousands of sharecroppers in the North American Dust Bowl were pushed off their land and lured across the continent to California to pick fruit for starvation wages. Steinbeck told their story — how big business bullied them out of a living; how, with the collusion of local police, they were kept brutally in line.

The novel doesn’t pretend to be other than one-sided. The cops are hoodlums with badges, the big landowners wolves, the sharecroppers honest as the day is long. But even adjusted for bias, it is stirring stuff.

When it was published in 1939, it won a Pulitzer Prize, was turned into a much re-run film, and contributed to Steinbeck’s Nobel Award in 1962. More important, it roused widespread concern for the migrants — and also a sense of hope. Steinbeck embedded in his novel a philosophy that was full of faith in the better side of human nature. The key was co-operation: turning ‘I’ into ‘we’ for the welfare of both. In a competitive system, he felt, people survive by treading on others.

‘The quality of owning,' wrote Steinbeck. ‘freezes you for ever into “I” and cuts you off from the “we”.’ In his view, the emotionally frozen businessman grabs and grabs, fearfully building walls to keep out his fellow human beings from stealing his treasures. As his possessions grow, he shrinks inside. Eventually, he has grabbed so much and left so little that he has good reason to fear the hungry outside his walls.

Nor does this businessman co-operate with nature: he just robs her for a fast buck. Steinbeck suggests that when the rains hesitated over Oklahoma and the parched lands turned to dust, the ‘natural’ disaster had in fact been triggered off by human greed. The soil was so vulnerable because it had been ‘cottoned out’. Despite the share-croppers’ pleas to replenish the earth by crop rotation, the absentee landlords insisted on the hungry cotton crop being planted repeatedly. By contrast the share-croppers co-operate with the natural world. The land is cared for, understood; in return, it sustains the families who work it When a large, impersonal bank owns it, land takes on a crazily skewed meaning. Now land is not for feeding human hunger. Hunger becomes the weapon for coercing men and women into a cheap labour force: land is just for making money.

Steinbeck analysed the agribusiness cartels to show how their ‘free enterprise’ system had become a monopoly by another name. For example, a Californian landowners’ cartel deliberately over-advertised jobs for fruit-pickers. A new gold rush began, this time for golden mountains of oranges. Mid-westerners arrived by the hundred thousand, increasingly famished for work. but there were jobs only by the hundred. The cartel persistently lowered its wage-rate. But what worker dared complain when a thousand jobless men with swollen-bellied infants would work for less? And any small farmer who sympathised with the migrants was similarly crushed by the cartel.

The workers’ only recourse, Steinbeck concluded, was unionisation: collective action against the bosses and co-operation amongst themselves. He emphasised the point by centering his novel on one idealised family, the Joads, innocent victims of a rapacious commercial system and Rugged Individualists par excellence. They learn through necessity the value of pooling their resources with other migrant families. If one family has food and another not, the food is unquestioningly shared. If a baby dies, a pile of coins mysteriously appears by the parents’ makeshift tent so that the baby may be honourably buried.

Obversely, rape, adultery and theft are ruled out They would destroy the fragile network of friendship that is the migrants’ only support Steinbeck portrays the laws on the statute books as inflexible to circumstance and open to abuse by the powerful against the powerless. He places his faith instead in the spontaneous laws of social conduct that spring up among the migrants, for these respect humanity and genuinely protect the defenceless. As Ma Joad says. ‘Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody.’

Rose of Sharon, her once self-centred daughter, ends the novel with a heavily symbolic act of selflessness; she feeds a dying stranger with breastrnilk intended for her stillborn baby. It’s a little bizarre, but it makes Steinbeck’s point unforgettably.

Anuradha Vittachi

The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck (1939)
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Pan (pbk.) £1.95.
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New Internationalist issue 105 magazine cover This article is from the November 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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